Fans of Bill Evans tend to idolize the pianist, creating in their minds a larger-than-life figure who simmered with quiet sensitivity and restless energy. Others who knew him see Evans as a cloistered prisoner of his own making, a powerful artist with an irreversible weakness for self-destructive behavior. In this regard, Evans is viewed as a tragic figure—a meek poet-introvert held hostage by suicidal traits that surely must have been undiagnosed depression. In truth, Evans remains both portraits at once. But what may come as a shock to many fans is how average Evans was during his downtime. As Laurie Verchomin [pictured] indicates, this choice may have been Evans' bid for normalcy and a respite from the emotional gravel pit that was his professional life.
In Part 4 of my five-part series of interviews with Laurie, who was Evans' lover during the last 18 months of his life, she talks about Evans' work habits at home, his prodigious use of cocaine, taking piano lessons from Evans, and Evans' fondness for the normalcy he found at racetracks:
JazzWax: Given everything Bill was going through, did he remain focused on his music?
Laurie Verchomin: Bill engaged with music every single waking moment of each day. He took all of his resources and put them into being creative. That was his highest priority, to keep creating. He put everything he had into music. Most people can’t even consider what it’s like to put everything into something to a point where there’s nothing left for yourself.
JW: Did Evans listen to his own music?
LV: Bill was into listening to whatever he was producing at the time. He was doing a lot of composing. He had a beautiful Chickering and Sons baby grand piano in the living room. His first wife Ellaine gave it to him. He would get up in the middle of the night and play really softly because we were in an apartment building. At the piano, he would be in a state of ecstasy. Every time he sat down, he would be working on different themes.
JW: Was there a lot of reworking?
LV: No. Bill would just start playing and things would come out. It was like watching a potter at his wheel. He’d start to shape what he was playing, and soon it was formed. When it came to music, nothing was tortuous for him.
JW: Did he consume cocaine before composing?
LV: Bill was always on drugs. That was just part of who he was. He never got up because he never went to sleep the entire time I knew him. He’d lay down resting. He’d nod out. But he was never really asleep. You have no idea how much cocaine he was doing.
JW: How much?
LV: A couple of ounces a week.
JW: Is that a lot?
LV: Most people back in the late '70s then said they had a gram for the weekend. Think about how many grams are in an ounce—28 . That’s where he spent all his money.
JW: Did that bother you, that the money he earned wasn’t spent on romantic things with you, like dinners out?
LV: [Laughs] Sometimes we’d go out to dinner. You have to understand, I didn’t really have those expectations.
JW: Did you ever tell him to stop taking the cocaine?
LV: Why would I tell him what to do? He was having his life, and I was just there to witness it. I was just enjoying his company. He wasn't questioning me about the things I was doing. When you’re a young person and carrying all the conditioning of your parents, you feel so guilty about everything you do. I felt guilty I wasn’t a famous musician like he was. But I wasn’t going to attempt the impossible. I had to come to the realization early on that for me to survive in that relationship, I had to just enjoy the short time I likely had with him and be in the moment.
JW: Did Bill give you piano lessons?
LV: We had a few lessons. It was interesting. He showed me how to play a blues line and how to play a blues scale. Then he made it really clear that there was no real point in continuing.
JW: That sounds cruel, no?
LV: Not really. Bill knew I wasn’t going to become a serious piano player. That’s how he was with music. It was only for those who threw themselves into it completely. So continuing beyond a point didn't make much sense.
JW: What was the horse’s name?
LV: Annie Hall. It was a trotter—one of those harness-racing horses that pull a two-wheeled cart.
JW: That seems so strange.
LV: Most people aren’t aware of how much of a regular guy Bill was. He liked to go to the racetrack. He liked to bet on the horses.
JW: Was it a gambling thing?
LV: Not really. He just liked it there because no one knew who he was. He’d have a Pepsi and I’d have a club sandwich. He had regular friends there who didn’t know who he was. Everyone got to wear their polyester outfits [laughs]. Bill really valued his own time and his privacy. He had such a strong focus on the creative process that the only way he could decompress was to be in an absurdly non-creative environment, like the track. He was just like the guy next door. And he was kind and good to everyone he met.
JW: So Bill was pretty average socially.
LV: Bill developed a pattern early on. From age 14 to 28, he just focused on music, not girlfriends or having a family. Then he started doing heroin. Once he started, he could focus on music even deeper. He didn’t need a social life. He kind of streamlined his life around music and never left that zone. There were just a few people who got into his inner world. That was as much of an intimate relationship he would have with others. He had his first wife for 11 years and his second wife for 5 years. Family life was too much for him. He had to make a big space to be alone.
Tomorrow, in the final segment of my interview series, Laurie recalls the chilling events that led up to Evans' death on Monday, September 15, 1980.
Photo of Laurie (top of page) courtesy of Laurie Verchimon. Laurie is working on a book about her relationship and experiences with Bill Evans. For more, visit Laurie's site here.
JazzWax clip: While this clip isn't from the time period I'm focusing on—it's from 1975—you have to see Evans and John Lewis playing a duet on Billie's Bounce across from Marian McPartland and Patrice Rushen...